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Activism – a term that strikes fear into the hearts of many business managers, especially in some of the industries we work with, from agriculture to construction. And social media activism? That’s the most terrifying kind of activism – it can take hold so quickly, spread so far and do so much reputational damage.

On or off social media, there’s only one real way to deal with activism: by building trust.

If you want suppliers, or government, or end-users to listen to you, to understand your position, to think critically about what activists are telling them, first they have to trust you.

Let’s look at the three main reasons people find it so easy to trust activists:

Activists use emotion. Businesses respond with data. You can’t undo the impact of an upsetting image or the words of a whistle-blower by producing a spreadsheet. It doesn’t matter if the facts are on your side. Sorry, but it really doesn’t. Not if you can’t connect with people.
People like to align themselves with causes – but they’re also, on the whole, pretty lazy. Re-tweeting a message slamming big business or sharing a provocative Facebook post gives people an immediate sense of ‘doing something’. There’s an element of instant gratification, and it takes virtually no effort. It’s known as “slacktivism” for a reason. Critically analysing the broader circumstances – that’s harder. People aren’t that keen to do it unless they’re bought in…because they trust you.
David and Goliath. The underdog. The little guy. The everyman. Activists will almost always have an advantage here. People are inherently suspicious of someone with a commercial interest and that’s just a fact to be accepted and taken into account.

The art of activism hasn’t really changed.

Activism in the social media space is not actually that different from old-fashioned activism, and in fact it often goes hand in hand with it – protests, sit ins, letters to the media, they’re all still happening. The goal is still to cut through, get people in the gut, create a visceral and instant response. Social media is just a tool to help spread the message.

As it happens, many activist organisations are very sophisticated and use the tools very well, often better than business or industry.

So is it a hopeless case? What can you do?

You can build trust.


You can’t fake authenticity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. When you say you care, care. When you say you’re taking action, take action.
Earn the trust of your own people first. If you want to shift a conversation, start from the inside.
Listen to understand, not to respond. Arguing, deflecting, denying, avoiding – none of these things build trust. Do your critics have any valid points? Acknowledge them. Do you and your critics have any shared goals or values? Identify them and respect them.
Be part of the conversation. You can’t build trust in the midst of a crisis. Be open as a default. And when things do get rough, don’t be tempted to slam the blinds down and turn off the lights.
Know your role. If you’re part of a bigger industry, understand that it doesn’t help to have multiple voices with different messages.

And one other thing to remember – activism can deliver great things, and brands can be activists, too. Your brand or business can raise awareness of worthy causes, support the community and align itself with all that is positive as we forge our way towards Covid recovery.

Kendi Burness-Cowan